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Analysis
Context
"The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock"
Waste Land, I
Waste Land, II
Waste Land, III
Waste Land, IV
Waste Land, V

Eliot's Poetry
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Four Quartets:
"Burnt Norton"
"East Coker"
"The Dry Salvages"
"Little Gidding"

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Analysis

Analysis
Eliot attributed a great deal of his early style to the French Symbolists--Rimbaud,
Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Laforgue--whom he first encountered in college, in a book by Arthur
Symons called The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It is easy to understand why a young
aspiring poet would want to imitate these glamorous bohemian figures, but their ultimate effect
on his poetry is perhaps less profound than he claimed. While he took from them their ability to
infuse poetry with high intellectualism while maintaining a sensuousness of language, Eliot also
developed a great deal that was new and original. His early works, like "The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock" and The Waste Land, draw on a wide range of cultural reference to depict a
modern world that is in ruins yet somehow beautiful and deeply meaningful. Eliot uses
techniques like pastiche and juxtaposition to make his points without having to argue them
explicitly. As Ezra Pound once famously said, Eliot truly did "modernize himself." In addition to
showcasing a variety of poetic innovations, Eliot's early poetry also develops a series of
characters who fit the type of the modern man as described by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and others of
Eliot's contemporaries. The title character of "Prufrock" is a perfect example: solitary,
neurasthenic, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the outside world.
As Eliot grew older, and particularly after he converted to Christianity, his poetry
changed. The later poems emphasize depth of analysis over breadth of allusion; they
simultaneously become more hopeful in tone: Thus, a work such as Four Quartets explores more
philosophical territory and offers propositions instead of nihilism. The experiences of living in
England during World War II inform the Quartets, which address issues of time, experience,
mortality, and art. Rather than lamenting the ruin of modern culture and seeking redemption in
the cultural past, as The Waste Land does, the quartets offer ways around human limits through
art and spirituality. The pastiche of the earlier works is replaced by philosophy and logic, and the
formal experiments of his early years are put aside in favor of a new language consciousness,
which emphasizes the sounds and other physical properties of words to create musical, dramatic,
and other subtle effects.
However, while Eliot's poetry underwent significance transformations over the course of
his career, his poems also bear many unifying aspects: all of Eliot's poetry is marked by a
conscious desire to bring together the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the emotional in a way that
both honors the past and acknowledges the present. Eliot is always conscious of his own efforts,
and he frequently comments on his poetic endeavors in the poems themselves. This humility,
which often comes across as melancholy, makes Eliot's some of the most personal, as well as the
most intellectually satisfying, poetry in the English language.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot, or T.S. Eliot as he is better known, was born in 1888 in St. Louis.
He was the son of a prominent industrialist who came from a well- connected Boston family.
Eliot always felt the loss of his family's New England roots and seemed to be somewhat ashamed
of his father's business success; throughout his life he continually sought to return to the epicenter
of Anglo- Saxon culture, first by attending Harvard and then by emigrating to England, where he
lived from 1914 until his death. Eliot began graduate study in philosophy at Harvard and
completed his dissertation, although the outbreak of World War I prevented him from taking his
examinations and receiving the degree. By that time, though, Eliot had already written "The Love
Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the War, which kept him in England, led him to decide to pursue
poetry full-time.
Eliot met Ezra Pound in 1914, as well, and it was Pound who was his main mentor and
editor and who got his poems published and noticed. During a 1921 break from his job as a bank
clerk (to recover from a mental breakdown), Eliot finished the work that was to secure him fame,
The Waste Land. This poem, heavily edited by Pound and perhaps also by Eliot's wife, Vivien,
addressed the fragmentation and alienation characteristic of modern culture, making use of these
fragments to create a new kind of poetry. It was also around this time that Eliot began to write
criticism, partly in an effort to explain his own methods. In 1925, he went to work for the
publishing house Faber & Faber. Despite the distraction of his wife's increasingly serious bouts
of mental illness, Eliot was from this time until his death the preeminent literary figure in the
English-speaking world; indeed, he was so monumental that younger poets often went out of
their way to avoid his looming shadow, painstakingly avoiding all similarities of style.
Eliot became interested in religion in the later 1920s and eventually converted to
Anglicanism. His poetry from this point onward shows a greater religious bent, although it never
becomes dogmatic the way his sometimes controversial cultural criticism does. Four Quartets,
his last major poetic work, combines a Christian sensibility with a profound uncertainty resulting
from the war's devastation of Europe. Eliot died in 1965 in London.

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Summary
This poem, the earliest of Eliot's major works, was completed in 1910 or 1911 but not
published until 1915. It is an examination of the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man-overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. Prufrock, the poem's speaker, seems to
be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to "force the moment to its crisis" by
somehow consummating their relationship. But Prufrock knows too much of life to "dare" an
approach to the woman: In his mind he hears the comments others make about his inadequacies,
and he chides himself for "presuming" emotional interaction could be possible at all. The poem
moves from a series of fairly concrete (for Eliot) physical settings--a cityscape (the famous
"patient etherised upon a table") and several interiors (women's arms in the lamplight, coffee
spoons, fireplaces)--to a series of vague ocean images conveying Prufrock's emotional distance
from the world as he comes to recognize his second-rate status ("I am not Prince Hamlet").
"Prufrock" is powerful for its range of intellectual reference and also for the vividness of
character achieved.
Form
"Prufrock" is a variation on the dramatic monologue, a type of poem popular with Eliot's
predecessors. Dramatic monologues are similar to soliloquies in plays. Three things characterize
the dramatic monologue, according to M.H. Abrams. First, they are the utterances of a specific
individual (not the poet) at a specific moment in time. Secondly, the monologue is specifically
directed at a listener or listeners whose presence is not directly referenced but is merely
suggested in the speaker's words. Third, the primary focus is the development and revelation of
the speaker's character. Eliot modernizes the form by removing the implied listeners and focusing
on Prufrock's interiority and isolation. The epigraph to this poem, from Dante's Inferno, describes
Prufrock's ideal listener: one who is as lost as the speaker and will never betray to the world the
content of Prufrock's present confessions. In the world Prufrock describes, though, no such
sympathetic figure exists, and he must, therefore, be content with silent reflection. In its focus on
character and its dramatic sensibility, "Prufrock" anticipates Eliot's later, dramatic works.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is irregular but not random. While sections of the poem
may resemble free verse, in reality, "Prufrock" is a carefully structured amalgamation of poetic
forms. The bits and pieces of rhyme become much more apparent when the poem is read aloud.
One of the most prominent formal characteristics of this work is the use of refrains. Prufrock's
continual return to the "women [who] come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" and his recurrent
questionings ("how should I presume?") and pessimistic appraisals ("That is not it, at all.") both
reference an earlier poetic tradition and help Eliot describe the consciousness of a modern,
neurotic individual. Prufrock's obsessiveness is aesthetic, but it is also a sign of compulsiveness
and isolation. Another important formal feature is the use of fragments of sonnet form,
particularly at the poem's conclusion. The three three-line stanzas are rhymed as the conclusion
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of a Petrarchan sonnet would be, but their pessimistic, anti-romantic content, coupled with the
despairing interjection, "I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me," creates a contrast
that comments bitterly on the bleakness of modernity.
Commentary
"Prufrock" displays the two most important characteristics of Eliot's early poetry. First, it
is strongly influenced by the French Symbolists, like Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, whom
Eliot had been reading almost constantly while writing the poem. From the Symbolists, Eliot
takes his sensuous language and eye for unnerving or anti-aesthetic detail that nevertheless
contributes to the overall beauty of the poem (the yellow smoke and the hair-covered arms of the
women are two good examples of this). The Symbolists, too, privileged the same kind of
individual Eliot creates with Prufrock: the moody, urban, isolated-yet-sensitive thinker. However,
whereas the Symbolists would have been more likely to make their speaker himself a poet or
artist, Eliot chooses to make Prufrock an unacknowledged poet, a sort of artist for the common
man.
The second defining characteristic of this poem is its use of fragmentation and
juxtaposition. Eliot sustained his interest in fragmentation and its applications throughout his
career, and his use of the technique changes in important ways across his body of work: Here, the
subjects undergoing fragmentation (and reassembly) are mental focus and certain sets of imagery;
in The Waste Land, it is modern culture that splinters; in the Four Quartets we find the fragments
of attempted philosophical systems. Eliot's use of bits and pieces of formal structure suggests that
fragmentation, although anxiety-provoking, is nevertheless productive; had he chosen to write in
free verse, the poem would have seemed much more nihilistic. The kinds of imagery Eliot uses
also suggest that something new can be made from the ruins: The series of hypothetical
encounters at the poem's center are iterated and discontinuous but nevertheless lead to a sort of
epiphany (albeit a dark one) rather than just leading nowhere. Eliot also introduces an image that
will recur in his later poetry, that of the scavenger. Prufrock thinks that he "should have been a
pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Crabs are scavengers, garbageeaters who live off refuse that makes its way to the sea floor. Eliot's discussions of his own poetic
technique (see especially his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent") suggest that making
something beautiful out of the refuse of modern life, as a crab sustains and nourishes itself on
garbage, may, in fact, be the highest form of art. At the very least, this notion subverts romantic
ideals about art; at best, it suggests that fragments may become reintegrated, that art may be in
some way therapeutic for a broken modern world. In The Waste Land, crabs become rats, and the
optimism disappears, but here Eliot seems to assert only the limitless potential of scavenging.
"Prufrock" ends with the hero assigning himself a role in one of Shakespeare's plays:
While he is no Hamlet, he may yet be useful and important as "an attendant lord, one that will
do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two" This implies that there is still a continuity
between Shakespeare's world and ours, that Hamlet is still relevant to us and that we are still part
of a world that could produce something like Shakespeare's plays. Implicit in this, of course, is
the suggestion that Eliot, who has created an "attendant lord," may now go on to create another
Hamlet. While "Prufrock" ends with a devaluation of its hero, it exalts its creator. Or does it? The
last line of the poem suggests otherwise--that when the world intrudes, when "human voices
wake us," the dream is shattered: "we drown." With this single line, Eliot dismantles the romantic
notion that poetic genius is all that is needed to triumph over the destructive, impersonal forces of
the modern world. In reality, Eliot the poet is little better than his creation: He differs from
Prufrock only by retaining a bit of hubris, which shows through from time to time. Eliot's poetic
creation, thus, mirrors Prufrock's soliloquy: Both are an expression of aesthetic ability and
sensitivity that seems to have no place in the modern world. This realistic, anti-romantic outlook
sets the stage for Eliot's later works, including The Waste Land.

"The Love Song of

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Waste Land, I

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The Waste Land Section I: "The Burial of the Dead"
Summary
The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial
service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different
speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in
which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian (this would be important if
the woman is meant to be a member of the recently defeated Austrian imperial family). The
woman mixes a meditation on the seasons with remarks on the barren state of her current
existence ("I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter"). The second section is a
prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the
reader "something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your
shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust" (Evelyn
Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening
prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a "hyacinth girl" and a nihilistic
epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her. These recollections are filtered through
quotations from Wagner's operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery
and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some
of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of
the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the
dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the
clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and
excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a
corpse planted in his garden. The episode concludes with a famous line from the preface to
Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal (an important collection of Symbolist poetry), accusing the reader of
sharing in the poet's sins.
Form
Like "Prufrock," this section of The Waste Land can be seen as a modified dramatic
monologue. The four speakers in this section are frantic in their need to speak, to find an
audience, but they find themselves surrounded by dead people and thwarted by outside
circumstances, like wars. Because the sections are so short and the situations so confusing, the
effect is not one of an overwhelming impression of a single character; instead, the reader is left
with the feeling of being trapped in a crowd, unable to find a familiar face.
Also like "Prufrock," The Waste Land employs only partial rhyme schemes and short
bursts of structure. These are meant to reference--but also rework-- the literary past, achieving
simultaneously a stabilizing and a defamiliarizing effect. The world of The Waste Land has some
parallels to an earlier time, but it cannot be approached in the same way. The inclusion of
fragments in languages other than English further complicates matters. The reader is not expected
to be able to translate these immediately; rather, they are reminders of the cosmopolitan nature of
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twentieth-century Europe and of mankind's fate after the Tower of Babel: We will never be able
to perfectly comprehend one another.
Commentary
Not only is The Waste Land Eliot's greatest work, but it may be--along with Joyce's
Ulysses--the greatest work of all modernist literature. Most of the poem was written in 1921, and
it first appeared in print in 1922. As the poem's dedication indicates, Eliot received a great deal of
guidance from Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to cut large sections of the planned work and to
break up the rhyme scheme. Recent scholarship suggests that Eliot's wife, Vivien, also had a
significant role in the poem's final form. A long work divided into five sections, The Waste Land
takes on the degraded mess that Eliot considered modern culture to constitute, particularly after
the first World War had ravaged Europe. A sign of the pessimism with which Eliot approaches
his subject is the poem's epigraph, taken from the Satyricon, in which the Sibyl (a woman with
prophetic powers who ages but never dies) looks at the future and proclaims that she only wants
to die. The Sibyl's predicament mirrors what Eliot sees as his own: He lives in a culture that has
decayed and withered but will not expire, and he is forced to live with reminders of its former
glory. Thus, the underlying plot of The Waste Land, inasmuch as it can be said to have one,
revolves around Eliot's reading of two extraordinarily influential contemporary cultural/
anthropological texts, Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazier's The
Golden Bough. Both of these works focus on the persistence of ancient fertility rituals in modern
thought and religion; of particular interest to both authors is the story of the Fisher King, who has
been wounded in the genitals and whose lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a
desiccated "waste land." Heal the Fisher King, the legend says, and the land will regain its
fertility. According to Weston and Frazier, healing the Fisher King has been the subject of mythic
tales from ancient Egypt to Arthurian England. Eliot picks up on the figure of the Fisher King
legend's wasteland as an appropriate description of the state of modern society. The important
difference, of course, is that in Eliot's world there is no way to heal the Fisher King; perhaps there
is no Fisher King at all. The legend's imperfect integration into a modern meditation highlights
the lack of a unifying narrative (like religion or mythology) in the modern world.
Eliot's poem, like the anthropological texts that inspired it, draws on a vast range of
sources. Eliot provided copious footnotes with the publication of The Waste Land in book form;
these are an excellent source for tracking down the origins of a reference. Many of the references
are from the Bible: at the time of the poem's writing Eliot was just beginning to develop an
interest in Christianity that would reach its apex in the Four Quartets. The overall range of
allusions in The Waste Land, though, suggests no overarching paradigm but rather a grab bag of
broken fragments that must somehow be pieced together to form a coherent whole. While Eliot
employs a deliberately difficult style and seems often to find the most obscure reference possible,
he means to do more than just frustrate his reader and display his own intelligence: He intends to
provide a mimetic account of life in the confusing world of the twentieth century.
The Waste Land opens with a reference to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In this case,
though, April is not the happy month of pilgrimages and storytelling. It is instead the time when
the land should be regenerating after a long winter. Regeneration, though, is painful, for it brings
back reminders of a more fertile and happier past. In the modern world, winter, the time of
forgetfulness and numbness, is indeed preferable. Marie's childhood recollections are also
painful: the simple world of cousins, sledding, and coffee in the park has been replaced by a
complex set of emotional and political consequences resulting from the war. The topic of
memory, particularly when it involves remembering the dead, is of critical importance in The
Waste Land. Memory creates a confrontation of the past with the present, a juxtaposition that
points out just how badly things have decayed. Marie reads for most of the night: ostracized by
politics, she is unable to do much else. To read is also to remember a better past, which could
produce a coherent literary culture.
The second episode contains a troubled religious proposition. The speaker describes a
true wasteland of "stony rubbish"; in it, he says, man can recognize only "[a] heap of broken
images." Yet the scene seems to offer salvation: shade and a vision of something new and
different. The vision consists only of nothingness--a handful of dust--which is so profound as to
be frightening; yet truth also resides here: No longer a religious phenomenon achieved through
Christ, truth is represented by a mere void. The speaker remembers a female figure from his past,
with whom he has apparently had some sort of romantic involvement. In contrast to the present
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setting in the desert, his memories are lush, full of water and blooming flowers. The vibrancy of
the earlier scene, though, leads the speaker to a revelation of the nothingness he now offers to
show the reader. Again memory serves to contrast the past with the present, but here it also
serves to explode the idea of coherence in either place. In the episode from the past, the
"nothingness" is more clearly a sexual failure, a moment of impotence. Despite the overall
fecundity and joy of the moment, no reconciliation, and, therefore, no action, is possible. This in
turn leads directly to the desert waste of the present. In the final line of the episode attention turns
from the desert to the sea. Here, the sea is not a locus for the fear of nothingness, and neither is it
the locus for a philosophical interpretation of nothingness; rather, it is the site of true, essential
nothingness itself. The line comes from a section of Tristan und Isolde where Tristan waits for
Isolde to come heal him. She is supposedly coming by ship but fails to arrive. The ocean is truly
empty, devoid of the possibility of healing or revelation.
The third episode explores Eliot's fascination with transformation. The tarot reader
Madame Sosostris conducts the most outrageous form of "reading" possible, transforming a
series of vague symbols into predictions, many of which will come true in succeeding sections of
the poem. Eliot transforms the traditional tarot pack to serve his purposes. The drowned sailor
makes reference to the ultimate work of magic and transformation in English literature,
Shakespeare's The Tempest ("Those are pearls that were his eyes" is a quote from one of Ariel's
songs). Transformation in The Tempest, though, is the result of the highest art of humankind.
Here, transformation is associated with fraud, vulgarity, and cheap mysticism. That Madame
Sosostris will prove to be right in her predictions of death and transformation is a direct
commentary on the failed religious mysticism and prophecy of the preceding desert section.
The final episode of the first section allows Eliot finally to establish the true wasteland of
the poem, the modern city. Eliot's London references Baudelaire's Paris ("Unreal City"),
Dickens's London ("the brown fog of a winter dawn") and Dante's hell ("the flowing crowd of the
dead"). The city is desolate and depopulated, inhabited only by ghosts from the past. Stetson, the
apparition the speaker recognizes, is a fallen war comrade. The speaker pesters him with a series
of ghoulish questions about a corpse buried in his garden: again, with the garden, we return to the
theme of regeneration and fertility. This encounter can be read as a quest for a meaning behind
the tremendous slaughter of the first World War; however, it can also be read as an exercise in
ultimate futility: as we see in Stetson's failure to respond to the speaker's inquiries, the dead offer
few answers. The great respective weights of history, tradition, and the poet's dead predecessors
combine to create an oppressive burden.

Waste Land, I

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Waste Land, II

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The Waste Land Section II: "A Game of Chess"
Summary
This section takes its title from two plays by the early 17th-century playwright Thomas
Middleton, in one of which the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction. This
section focuses on two opposing scenes, one of high society and one of the lower classes. The
first half of the section portrays a wealthy, highly groomed woman surrounded by exquisite
furnishings. As she waits for a lover, her neurotic thoughts become frantic, meaningless cries.
Her day culminates with plans for an excursion and a game of chess. The second part of this
section shifts to a London barroom, where two women discuss a third woman. Between the
bartender's repeated calls of "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME" (the bar is closing for the night)
one of the women recounts a conversation with their friend Lil, whose husband has just been
discharged from the army. She has chided Lil over her failure to get herself some false teeth,
telling her that her husband will seek out the company of other women if she doesn't improve her
appearance. Lil claims that the cause of her ravaged looks is the medication she took to induce an
abortion; having nearly died giving birth to her fifth child, she had refused to have another, but
her husband "won't leave [her] alone." The women leave the bar to a chorus of "good night(s)"
reminiscent of Ophelia's farewell speech in Hamlet.
Form
The first part of the section is largely in unrhymed iambic pentameter lines, or blank
verse. As the section proceeds, the lines become increasingly irregular in length and meter,
giving the feeling of disintegration, of things falling apart. As the woman of the first half begins
to give voice to her paranoid thoughts, things do fall apart, at least formally: We read lines of
dialogue, then a snippet from a nonsense song. The last four lines of the first half rhyme,
although they are irregular in meter, suggesting at least a partial return to stability.
The second half of the section is a dialogue interrupted by the barman's refrain. Rather
than following an organized structure of rhyme and meter, this section constitutes a loose series
of phrases connected by "I said(s)" and "she said(s)." This is perhaps the most poetically
experimental section of the entire poem. Eliot is writing in a lower-class vernacular here that
resists poetic treatment. This section refutes the prevalent claim that iambic pentameter mirrors
normal English speech patterns: Line length and stresses are consistently irregular. Yet the
section sounds like poetry: the repeated use of "I said" and the grounding provided by the
barman's chorus allow the woman's speech to flow elegantly, despite her rough phrasing and the
coarse content of her story.
Commentary
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destruction, the other side of this sexuality is a rampant fecundity associated with a lack of
culture and rapid aging. The first woman is associated by allusion with Cleopatra, Dido, and even
Keats's Lamia, by virtue of the lushness of language surrounding her (although Eliot would never
have acknowledged Keats as an influence). She is a frustrated, overly emotional but not terribly
intellectual figure, oddly sinister, surrounded by "strange synthetic perfumes" and smoking
candles. She can be seen as a counterpart to the title character of Eliot's earlier "Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock," with whom she shares both a physical setting and a profound sense of isolation.
Her association with Dido and Cleopatra, two women who committed suicide out of frustrated
love, suggests her fundamental irrationality. Unlike the two queens of myth, however, this
woman will never become a cultural touchstone. Her despair is pathetic, rather than moving, as
she demands that her lover stay with her and tell her his thoughts. The lover, who seems to be
associated with the narrator of this part of the poem, can think only of drowning (again, in a
reference to The Tempest) and rats among dead men's bones. The woman is explicitly compared
to Philomela, a character out of Ovid's Metamorphoses who is raped by her brother-in-law the
king, who then cuts her tongue out to keep her quiet. She manages to tell her sister, who helps her
avenge herself by murdering the king's son and feeding him to the king. The sisters are then
changed into birds, Philomela into a nightingale. This comparison suggests something essentially
disappointing about the woman, that she is unable to communicate her interior self to the world.
The woman and her surroundings, although aesthetically pleasing, are ultimately sterile and
meaningless, as suggested by the nonsense song that she sings (which manages to debase even
Shakespeare).
The second scene in this section further diminishes the possibility that sex can bring
regeneration--either cultural or personal. This section is remarkably free of the cultural allusions
that dominate the rest of the poem; instead, it relies on vernacular speech to make its point.
Notice that Eliot is using a British vernacular: By this point he had moved to England
permanently and had become a confirmed Anglophile. Although Eliot is able to produce
startlingly beautiful poetry from the rough speech of the women in the bar, he nevertheless
presents their conversation as further reason for pessimism. Their friend Lil has done everything
the right way--married, supported her soldier husband, borne children--yet she is being punished
by her body. Interestingly, this section ends with a line echoing Ophelia's suicide speech in
Hamlet; this links Lil to the woman in the first section of the poem, who has also been compared
to famous female suicides. The comparison between the two is not meant to suggest equality
between them or to propose that the first woman's exaggerated sense of high culture is in any way
equivalent to the second woman's lack of it; rather, Eliot means to suggest that neither woman's
form of sexuality is regenerative.

Waste Land, II

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > The Waste Land Section III: "The Fire Sermon"

Waste Land, III

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The Waste Land Section III: "The Fire Sermon"
Summary
The title of this, the longest section of The Waste Land, is taken from a sermon given by
Buddha in which he encourages his followers to give up earthly passion (symbolized by fire) and
seek freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly does indeed take place in this
section, as a series of increasingly debased sexual encounters concludes with a river-song and a
religious incantation. The section opens with a desolate riverside scene: Rats and garbage
surround the speaker, who is fishing and "musing on the king my brother's wreck." The riversong begins in this section, with the refrain from Spenser's Prothalamion: "Sweet Thames, run
softly till I end my song." A snippet from a vulgar soldier's ballad follows, then a reference back
to Philomela (see the previous section). The speaker is then propositioned by Mr. Eugenides, the
one-eyed merchant of Madame Sosostris's tarot pack. Eugenides invites the speaker to go with
him to a hotel known as a meeting place for homosexual trysts.
The speaker then proclaims himself to be Tiresias, a figure from classical mythology who
has both male and female features ("Old man with wrinkled female breasts") and is blind but can
"see" into the future. Tiresias/the speaker observes a young typist, at home for tea, who awaits
her lover, a dull and slightly arrogant clerk. The woman allows the clerk to have his way with
her, and he leaves victorious. Tiresias, who has "foresuffered all," watches the whole thing. After
her lover's departure, the typist thinks only that she's glad the encounter is done and over.
A brief interlude begins the river-song in earnest. First, a fisherman's bar is described,
then a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. These are among the few moments of
tranquility in the poem, and they seem to represent some sort of simpler alternative. The Thamesdaughters, borrowed from Spenser's poem, chime in with a nonsense chorus ("Weialala leia /
Wallala leialala"). The scene shifts again, to Queen Elizabeth I in an amorous encounter with the
Earl of Leicester. The queen seems unmoved by her lover's declarations, and she thinks only of
her "people humble people who expect / Nothing." The section then comes to an abrupt end with
a few lines from St. Augustine's Confessions and a vague reference to the Buddha's Fire Sermon
("burning").
Form
This section of The Waste Land is notable for its inclusion of popular poetic forms,
particularly musical ones. The more plot-driven sections are in Eliot's usual assortment of various
line lengths, rhymed at random. "The Fire Sermon," however, also includes bits of many musical
pieces, including Spenser's wedding song (which becomes the song of the Thames-daughters), a
soldier's ballad, a nightingale's chirps, a song from Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield,
and a mandolin tune (which has no words but is echoed in "a clatter and a chatter from within").
The use of such "low" forms cuts both ways here: In one sense, it provides a critical commentary
on the episodes described, the cheap sexual encounters shaped by popular culture (the
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gramophone, the men's hotel). But Eliot also uses these bits and pieces to create high art, and
some of the fragments he uses (the lines from Spenser in particular) are themselves taken from
more exalted forms. In the case of the Prothalamion, in fact, Eliot is placing himself within a
tradition stretching back to ancient Greece (classically, "prothalamion" is a generic term for a
poem-like song written for a wedding). Again this provides an ironic contrast to the debased
goings-on but also provides another form of connection and commentary. Another such
reference, generating both ironic distance and proximate parallels, is the inclusion of Elizabeth I:
The liaison between Elizabeth and Leicester is traditionally romanticized, and, thus, the reference
seems to clash with the otherwise sordid nature of this section. However, Eliot depicts Elizabeth-and Spenser, for that matter--as a mere fragment, stripped of noble connotations and made to
represent just one more piece of cultural rubbish. Again, this is not meant to be a democratizing
move but a nihilistic one: Romance is dead.
Commentary
The opening two stanzas of this section describe the ultimate "Waste Land" as Eliot sees
it. The wasteland is cold, dry, and barren, covered in garbage. Unlike the desert, which at least
burns with heat, this place is static, save for a few scurrying rats. Even the river, normally a
symbol of renewal, has been reduced to a "dull canal." The ugliness stands in implicit contrast to
the "Sweet Thames" of Spenser's time. The most significant image in these lines, though, is the
rat. Like the crabs in Prufrock, rats are scavengers, taking what they can from the refuse of
higher-order creatures. The rat could be said to provide a model for Eliot's poetic process: Like
the rat, Eliot takes what he can from earlier, grander generations and uses the bits and pieces to
sustain (poetic) life. Somehow this is preferable to the more coherent but vulgar existence of the
contemporary world, here represented by the sound of horns and motors in the distance,
intimating a sexual liaison.
The actual sexual encounters that take place in this section of the poem are infinitely
unfruitful. Eugenides proposes a homosexual tryst, which by its very nature thwarts fertility. The
impossibility of regeneration by such means is symbolized by the currants in his pocket--the
desiccated, deadened version of what were once plump, fertile fruits. The typist and her lover are
equally barren in their way, even though reproduction is at least theoretically possible for the
two. Living in so impoverished a manner that she does not even own a bed, the typist is certainly
not interested in a family. Elizabeth and Leicester are perhaps the most interesting of the three
couples, however. For political reasons, Elizabeth was required to represent herself as constantly
available for marriage (to royalty from countries with whom England may have wanted an
alliance); out of this need came the myth of the "Virgin Queen." This can be read as the opposite
of the Fisher King legend: To protect the vitality of the land, Elizabeth had to compromise her
own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher King story, the renewal of the land comes with the renewal
of the Fisher King's sexual potency. Her tryst with Leicester, therefore, is a consummation that is
simultaneously denied, an event that never happened. The twisted logic underlying Elizabeth's
public sexuality, or lack thereof, mirrors and distorts the Fisher King plot and further questions
the possibility for renewal, especially through sexuality, in the modern world.
Tiresias, thus, becomes an important model for modern existence. Neither man nor
woman, and blind yet able to see with ultimate clarity, he is an individual who does not hope or
act. He has, like Prufrock, "seen it all," but, unlike Prufrock, he sees no possibility for action.
Whereas Prufrock is paralyzed by his neuroses, Tiresias is held motionless by ennui and
pragmatism. He is not quite able to escape earthly things, though, for he is forced to sit and watch
the sordid deeds of mortals; like the Sibyl in the poem's epigraph, he would like to die but cannot.
The brief interlude following the typist's tryst may offer an alternative to escape, by describing a
warm, everyday scene of work and companionship; however, the interlude is brief, and Eliot
once again tosses us into a world of sex and strife. Tiresias disappears, to be replaced by St.
Augustine at the end of the section. Eliot claims in his footnote to have deliberately conflated
Augustine and the Buddha, as the representatives of Eastern and Western asceticism. Both seem,
in the lines Eliot quotes, to be unable to transcend the world on their own: Augustine must call on
God to "pluck [him] out," while Buddha can only repeat the word "burning," unable to break free
of its monotonous fascination. The poem's next section, which will relate the story of a death
without resurrection, exposes the absurdity of these two figures' faith in external higher powers.
That this section ends with only the single word "burning," isolated on the page, reveals the
futility of all of man's struggles.

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > The Waste Land Section IV: "Death by Water"
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Waste Land, IV

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The Waste Land Section IV: "Death by Water"

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The shortest section of the poem, "Death by Water" describes a man, Phlebas the
Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as
the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider
Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality.
Form
While this section appears on the page as a ten-line stanza, in reading, it compresses into
eight: four pairs of rhyming couplets. Both visually and audibly, this is one of the most formally
organized sections of the poem. It is meant to recall other highly organized forms that often have
philosophical or religious import, like aphorisms and parables. The alliteration and the
deliberately archaic language ("o you," "a fortnight dead") also contribute to the serious, didactic
feel of this section.
Commentary
The major point of this short section is to rebut ideas of renewal and regeneration.
Phlebas just dies; that's it. Like Stetson's corpse in the first section, Phlebas's body yields nothing
more than products of decay. However, the section's meaning is far from flat; indeed, its ironic
layering is twofold. First, this section fulfills one of the prophecies of Madame Sosostris in the
poem's first section: "Fear death by water," she says, after pulling the card of the Drowned Sailor.
Second, this section, in its language and form, mimics other literary forms (parables, biblical
stories, etc.) that are normally rich in meaning. These two features suggest that something of
great significance lies here. In reality, though, the only lesson that Phlebas offers is that the
physical reality of death and decay triumphs over all. Phlebas is not resurrected or transfigured.
Eliot further emphasizes Phlebas's dried-up antiquity and irrelevance by placing this section in
the distant past (by making Phlebas a Phoenician).

Waste Land, IV

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > The Waste Land Section V: "What the Thunder Said"

Waste Land, V

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The Waste Land Section V: "What the Thunder Said"
Summary
The final section of The Waste Land is dramatic in both its imagery and its events. The
first half of the section builds to an apocalyptic climax, as suffering people become "hooded
hordes swarming" and the "unreal" cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London
are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A decaying chapel is described, which suggests the
chapel in the legend of the Holy Grail. Atop the chapel, a cock crows, and the rains come,
relieving the drought and bringing life back to the land. Curiously, no heroic figure has appeared
to claim the Grail; the renewal has come seemingly at random, gratuitously.
The scene then shifts to the Ganges, half a world away from Europe, where thunder
rumbles. Eliot draws on the traditional interpretation of "what the thunder says," as taken from
the Upanishads (Hindu fables). According to these fables, the thunder "gives," "sympathizes,"
and "controls" through its "speech"; Eliot launches into a meditation on each of these aspects of
the thunder's power. The meditations seem to bring about some sort of reconciliation, as a Fisher
King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his
imminent death or at least abdication. The poem ends with a series of disparate fragments from a
children's song, from Dante, and from Elizabethan drama, leading up to a final chant of "Shantih
shantih shantih"--the traditional ending to an Upanishad. Eliot, in his notes to the poem, translates
this chant as "the peace which passeth understanding," the expression of ultimate resignation.
Form
Just as the third section of the poem explores popular forms, such as music, the final
section of The Waste Land moves away from more typical poetic forms to experiment with
structures normally associated with religion and philosophy. The proposition and meditation
structure of the last part of this section looks forward to the more philosophically oriented Four
Quartets, Eliot's last major work. The reasoned, structured nature of the final stanzas comes as a
relief after the obsessively repetitive language and alliteration ("If there were water / And no
rock / If there were rock / And also water...") of the apocalyptic opening. The reader's relief at the
shift in style mirrors the physical relief brought by the rain midway through the section. Both
formally and thematically, then, this final chapter follows a pattern of obsession and resignation.
Its patterning reflects the speaker's offer at the end to "fit you," to transform experience into
poetry ("fit" is an archaic term for sections of a poem or play; here, "fit" is used as a verb,
meaning "to render into a fit," to make into poetry).
Commentary
The initial imagery associated with the apocalypse at this section's opening is taken from
the crucifixion of Christ. Significantly, though, Christ is not resurrected here: we are told, "He
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who was living is now dead." The rest of the first part, while making reference to contemporary
events in Eastern Europe and other more traditional apocalypse narratives, continues to draw on
Biblical imagery and symbolism associated with the quest for the Holy Grail. The repetitive
language and harsh imagery of this section suggest that the end is perhaps near, that not only will
there be no renewal but that there will be no survival either. Cities are destroyed, rebuilt, and
destroyed, mirroring the cyclical downfall of cultures: Jerusalem, Greece, Egypt, and Austria-among the major empires of the past two millennia--all see their capitals fall. There is something
nevertheless insubstantial about this looming disaster: it seems "unreal," as the ghost-filled
London did earlier in the poem. It is as if such a profound end would be inappropriate for such a
pathetic civilization. Rather, we expect the end to be accompanied by a sense of boredom and
surrender.
Release comes not from any heroic act but from the random call of a farmyard bird. The
symbolism surrounding the Grail myth is still extant but it is empty, devoid of people. No one
comes to the ruined chapel, yet it exists regardless of who visits it. This is a horribly sad
situation: The symbols that have previously held profound meaning still exist, yet they are
unused and unusable. A flash of light--a quick glimpse of truth and vitality, perhaps--releases the
rain and lets the poem end.
The meditations upon the Upanishads give Eliot a chance to test the potential of the
modern world. Asking, "what have we given?" he finds that the only time people give is in the
sexual act and that this gift is ultimately evanescent and destructive: He associates it with spider
webs and solicitors reading wills. Just as the poem's speaker fails to find signs of giving, so too
does he search in vain for acts of sympathy--the second characteristic of "what the thunder says":
He recalls individuals so caught up in his or her own fate--each thinking only of the key to his or
her own prison--as to be oblivious to anything but "ethereal rumors" of others. The third idea
expressed in the thunder's speech--that of control--holds the most potential, although it implies a
series of domineering relationships and surrenders of the self that, ultimately, are never realized.
Finally Eliot turns to the Fisher King himself, still on the shore fishing. The possibility of
regeneration for the "arid plain" of society has been long ago discarded. Instead, the king will do
his best to put in order what remains of his kingdom, and he will then surrender, although he still
fails to understand the true significance of the coming void (as implied by the phrase "peace
which passeth understanding"). The burst of allusions at the end can be read as either a final
attempt at coherence or as a final dissolution into a world of fragments and rubbish. The king
offers some consolation: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," he says, suggesting
that it will be possible to continue on despite the failed redemption. It will still be possible for
him, and for Eliot, to "fit you," to create art in the face of madness. It is important that the last
words of the poem are in a non-Western language: Although the meaning of the words
themselves communicates resignation ("peace which passeth understanding"), they invoke an
alternative set of paradigms to those of the Western world; they offer a glimpse into a culture and
a value system new to us--and, thus, offer some hope for an alternative to our own dead world.

Waste Land, V

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > Four Quartets : "Burnt Norton"

Four Quartets:

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Four Quartets: "Burnt Norton"
Summary
The first of the quartets, "Burnt Norton," is named for a ruined country house in
Gloucestershire. This quartet is the most explicitly concerned with time as an abstract principle.
The first section combines a hypothesis on time--that the past and the future are always contained
in the present--with a description of a rose garden where children hide, laughing. A bird serves as
the poet's guide, bringing him into the garden, showing him around, and saving him from despair
at not being able to reach the laughing children. The second section begins with a sort of song,
filled with abstract images of a vaguely pagan flavor. The poem shifts midway through the
section, where it again assumes a more meditative tone in order to sort out the differences
between consciousness and living in time: The speaker asserts, "To be conscious is not to be in
time," for consciousness implies a fixed perspective while time is characterized by a transient
relativity (around the fixed point of the present). However, this statement does not intend to
devalue memory and temporal existence, which, according to the poem, allow the moments of
greatest beauty. The third section of "Burnt Norton" reads like the bridge section of a song, in
which the key changes. In this section, Eliot describes a "place of disaffection"--perhaps the
everyday world--which allows neither transcendence ("darkness") nor the beauty of the moment
("daylight"). The fourth, very short section returns to a sort of melody (some of the lines rhyme)
to describe the unattainable, fictional point of fixity around which time is organized. This point is
described as surrounded by flowers and birds; perhaps it can be found in the rose garden of the
first section. The final section of this quartet returns to reality: Despite the apparent vitality of
words and music, these must die; the children's laughter in the garden becomes a mocking
laughter, scorning our enslavement to time.
Form
Eliot is much less experimental with rhyme and meter here than he is in his earlier works.
Instead, he displays a mature language consciousness. Through the repetition of words and the
use of structures like chiasmus and pastiche, he creates a rhythm not dependent on previous
poetic forms. It is as if the mere meaning of the words is not enough to express the philosophical
concepts Eliot wants to explore, as they "decay with imprecision": He must exploit the physical
properties of the words themselves. The repetition and circularity of language that are this poem's
hallmarks highlight the infinite circularity of time: Just as past, present, and future cannot be
separated with any precision, neither can the words used to describe them. Rather than exploiting
bizarre combinations of images or intricate formal devices, Eliot uses the gravity of terms like
"past" and "present" to create a beautiful monument of ideas.
Commentary
The Four Quartets were written over a period of eight years, from 1935 to 1942. These
years span World War II; they also follow Eliot's conversion to the Church of England and his
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naturalization as a British subject. These poems are the work of an older, more mature, spiritually
attuned poet, facing a world torn by war and increasingly neglectful of the past. Each of the Four
Quartets considers spiritual existence, consciousness, and the relationship of the present to the
past. Whereas The Waste Land and others of Eliot's early works take an interest in the effects of
time on culture, the Quartets are concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the
endless span of human existence. Accordingly, each quartet focuses on a particular place with its
own distinctive significance to human history and takes off from that place to propose a series of
ideas about spirituality and meaningful experience. Each quartet separates into five sections;
Eliot used these divisions and the transitions between them to try to create an effect he described
as similar to the musical form of the sonata. The Quartets, thus, display none of the
fragmentation or collage-like qualities of Eliot's earlier poetry; instead, Eliot substitutes an
elegant measuredness and a new awareness of language: Puns and other forms of wordplay occur
with some frequency.
Eliot does not hide the ideas behind the poetry here. His meditations on time and being
are stated fairly explicitly and can be easily traced in the poem. "Burnt Norton" is, however, a
poem about distraction, and two of the more interesting aspects of the poem are also two of its
most understated moments. The first of these surrounds the garden in which the first section is
set. Certainly the garden--"our first world"--references the Garden of Eden: A place of
unattainable peace (and in this case insight) that is normally forbidden to mere mortals but that
exists in memory and in literature as a standard to which everyday existence must be unfavorably
compared. Yet the garden is also a part of the ruined estate from which this quartet takes its
name; it bears the marks of human presence and abandonment--empty pools and formal hedges
gone wild. The wreck of the garden brings to mind the ruins so prominent in Eliot's earlier
poetry, except that, here, ruins are a symbol of the futility of human aspirations and particularly
of the futility of trying to alter the natural order.
Ruins also call to mind fragments, especially of the kind that make up Eliot's earlier
poetry. The first line of the second section of "Burnt Norton"--"Garlic and sapphires in the mud"-highlights Eliot's new attitude toward the fragmentary nature of modern culture. This famous line
juxtaposes a series of random things, but the effect is not the atmosphere of belatedness and
melancholy characteristic of The Waste Land. Rather, the collage-like arrangements of this
section form a nearly coherent whole, a meaningless song that sounds traditional but isn't. Again
fragments and ruins stand in defiance of human aspirations, only this poem does not lament that
things once made sense and have now ceased to do so; rather, it declares that coherence never
existed at all--that meaning and human experience are necessarily mutually exclusive.
The second center of interest in this quartet is constructed around the Chinese vase and
the ruminations on poetry in the fifth section. This section clearly owes a debt to Keats's "Ode on
a Grecian Urn," with which it shares some of its thematic concerns and its imagery. The Chinese
jar represents the capacity of art to transcend the limitations of the moment, to achieve a kind of
victory over, or perspective upon, time. In its form and pattern, in its physical existence, the jar is
able to overcome the usual imprecision of human expression. By emphasizing form and pattern,
Eliot suggests that poetry, which takes advantage of the linguistic versions of these, may also be
able to achieve transcendence. Nevertheless, at the end there still remains the ghostly laughter of
children in the garden, mocking "the waste sad time" of the poet and of poetry. The place of
poetry and Eliot's own poetic practices will be a subject of scrutiny elsewhere in the Quartets.

Four Quartets:

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > Four Quartets : "East Coker"

"East Coker"

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Four Quartets: "East Coker"
Summary
This, the second of the Quartets, appeared in 1940. It takes its name from the village in
Somerset, England, that was the home of Eliot's first forebear to leave for America in the 17th
century. This poem is most concerned with the place of man in the natural order and with the idea
of renewal. The most explicitly Christian of the quartets, this is also the one that addresses the
War most directly, particularly in its pessimism and visions of destruction. In addition, Eliot here
engages in what is perhaps his most extended and direct meditation on his poetic career.
The first section of "East Coker" describes the cycle of renewal and decay as Eliot sees it.
Houses and other signs of human habitation become empty fields or freeway overpasses. In the
fields on summer nights, if one listens carefully enough, one can hear the sounds of the simple
rural life of the past. The language of this section is reminiscent of the biblical book of
Ecclesiastes, with its emphasis on natural cycles and harmony. Time here, however, is less
cyclical than it is linear: "In my beginning is my end." The second section of the poem opens
with a lyric on the disturbance of the seasons. Suddenly, the poem reverses itself, and Eliot
attacks his own poetic work as "not very satisfactory: / ...worn-out poetical fashion." Eliot rejects
"the knowledge derived from experience" as having "only a limited value," and he identifies
humility as the only wisdom possible for humans. The section ends with a reminder that the
houses and the dancers of the first section have all disappeared. The third section provides a
continuation of the string of disappearances, as Eliot catalogues those who have passed into the
darkness of death. This recalls the first section of The Waste Land ("I had not thought death had
undone so many"), except that it is, of course, much more pessimistic: Here, there are not even
the ghosts of former friends with whom to converse. The meditative portion of this section
combines an Eastern nihilism and rhetorical structure with a more Christian message, as the poet
tells himself to wait patiently and to expect a difficult route to awareness. The fourth section of
"East Coker" provides the most explicit reminder of the war. It describes a hospital staffed by a
"wounded surgeon" and a "dying nurse" where patients are not healed but are led through painful
illness to death and a tenuous salvation. The section ends with a reference to Good Friday, the
day of Christ's crucifixion--a reminder that anything worthy must come through suffering,
forbearance, and deferral to a higher authority. The final section of the poem again focuses on
Eliot's failure as a poet. He has wasted his youth and has only learned how to articulate ideas that
are no longer useful. His life is a struggle to "recover what has been lost." Finally, he settles for
an unsatisfying earthly existence followed by the promise of darkness and death, in which he will
finally find that "[i]n my end is my beginning."
Form
In this Quartet, Eliot continues to reject previous poetic forms in favor of an experiment
with language. Terms like "end" and "beginning" take on multiple meanings and shadings as they
are reused and juxtaposed. Eliot here displays a certain cleverness with words (the "receipt for
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deceit" that our forebears leave us, for example) that suggests frustration with trying to
communicate via his normal tone of high seriousness. The fourth section of "East Coker" is
written in perfect ababb rhyme and is one of the few works in which Eliot uses a sustained
formal structure. Perhaps in this submission to the authority of tradition, Eliot mirrors his
thematic submission to the authority of God in this section, which ends with the reference to
Good Friday. Perhaps Eliot resorts to a more formal structure in the feeling that many of his
previous poetic efforts seem futile. Either way, "East Coker" represents a continued shift away
from the highly fragmented style that characterizes The Waste Land and the other early works.
Commentary
In "East Coker," Eliot continues to work with a set of images that have appeared in his
poetry since The Waste Land. Encounters with "shades," or ghosts, come to represent the poet's
own mortality. They also come to represent a level of understanding that is always within sight,
yet forever unattainable. In this quartet, the children in the garden from "Burnt Norton" and the
shades on London Bridge from The Waste Land have been replaced by villagers on the green,
dancing in celebration of a wedding. The poem even shifts into archaic English at this point, as if
to assert that the apparitions are momentarily speaking through the poet. The villagers reappear at
other moments in the poem, often just when Eliot remarks that they have disappeared, and are
supplemented by the shades of section three, who represent literally the citizens of London
descending into subway tunnels to escape World War II air raids but who also seem to denote the
masses of humanity who have lived and died without making a mark on the world. Everything
cycles endlessly but without meaning: What could it possibly mean to be a part of something the
whole of which no one will ever have sufficient perspective to see?
Even Eliot's take on Christianity is colored by despair. The rebirth he describes as
resulting from Christ's crucifixion is no rebirth at all but a terrifying stay at a hospital staffed by
corpses. The best we can hope for is to "die of the absolute paternal care." Eliot emphasizes not
Easter Sunday--the day of the Resurrection--but instead Good Friday: the day of Christ's death,
for which humans bear responsibility. The hospital imagery and the emphasis on human
malignity are obvious references to the European war raging while Eliot was writing. They also,
though, represent his realization that human folly and the inability to see the larger designs
behind history doom any human endeavors to failure.
Particularly doomed to failure are Eliot's own attempts at poetry. This is by far the poet at
his most pessimistic. The beautiful, if confusing and despairing, lyric that opens the second
section is erased by the harsh assessment of poetry that follows it. Here words not only fail to
signify completely but indeed actively falsify, for they fail to appreciate the pattern rendered
anew "in every moment" for what it truly is: "a new and shocking valuation of all we have been."
This is the same assessment of time and perspective that Eliot had made in his earlier essay
"Tradition and the Individual Talent," except that here, the destruction and renovation brought
about by time does not enable poetry or enrich the cultural tradition--rather, it is merely crippling.
The contemporary world in this poem is made up not of the fragments of past glories that were
featured in The Waste Land, but of disconnected, entirely new and culturally blank features:
overpasses and subway tunnels. Thus, "East Coker" offers little hope for either humanity or
poetry.

"East Coker"

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > Four Quartets : "The Dry Salvages"

"The Dry Salvages"

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Four Quartets: "The Dry Salvages"
Summary
The third of the Quartets, "The Dry Salvages" appeared in 1941. The word "salvages" in
the title should be pronounced, as Eliot mentions in a note to the poem, to rhyme with "assuages,"
with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable. The Dry Salvages are a group of small, rocky
islands with a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. Eliot presumably visited them or at least
knew of them as a boy. This quartet departs from the pessimism and human ruins of the other
three to consider humanity as a whole, as an entity with a unified subconscious and memory that
produce mythic structures. Humanity is, thus, placed on a level with the natural world as
something with a history and with cycles of rebirth and renewal.
The first section of "The Dry Salvages" makes an explicit comparison between a river
and the sea as models for the unknowable. A river, while it may figure prominently in human
mythologies, is something that can eventually be crossed and conquered, while the sea represents
an endless reserve of depths and mysteries: Man can live with the ocean but he will never master
it. The second section of the poem seems to signify a reconciliation with the human lot. The sea
will never be either a blank slate or an easily circumscribed pond; "there is no end of it," and man
must always keep working in good faith. Time destroys but it also preserves, and just as there is
no mastery there is also no escape. The third section of the poem ruminates on words attributed to
Krishna, advising humanity not to "fare well" but to "fare forward." This is an exhortation to give
up aspirations--to stop seeking to do "well"--and to be satisfied with mere existence. Again Eliot
uses a ghostly figure, in this case a voice from high in a ship's rigging, to represent a level of
awareness unattainable for the series of travelers he describes here. The fourth section is a prayer
to the Virgin Mary, figured as a statue watching over the sea, asking her to pray for those who
voyage on the sea and those who wait for them at home. Both the sailors and their loved ones
stand in for all of humanity, faced with uncertain conditions and a lack of knowledge. The final
section of "The Dry Salvages" at last offers something akin to hope. While man will always strive
in vain to "apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time," everyday existence
nevertheless contains moments of only half-noticed grace--moments at which "you are the
music / While the music lasts." Moreover, "right action," while it will never be entirely
successful, is nevertheless almost the only way available to man to subvert the "daemonic" forces
that drive him.
Form
This quartet returns to some of the same easy music of "Burnt Norton." Again, Eliot plays
with words ("womb, or tomb"), and, particularly in the second section, there are moments in
which the gravity of the ideas forces the poetry into a somber, prose-like mode. In general,
though, Eliot uses far less repetition and circular language in this section, effectively lightening
the tone. The poem also makes use of extended "landscapes"--the river and the sea-- that allow
Eliot to engage in flights of descriptive language free from the philosophical seriousness of the
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rest of the Quartets. Again, too, formal structures are borrowed from religious and philosophical
sources, as in the prayer of section four and the Krishna material in the third section. In a way,
Eliot is associating his poetic efforts with the other struggles for knowledge listed in the final
section--astrology, palm-reading, animal sacrifices--and this leads him to take himself far less
seriously, to look instead for the moments of hidden beauty in his language.
Commentary
"The Dry Salvages" is interrupted at least twice by the ringing of a bell. In both cases it is
a bell at sea, either on a ship or on a buoy. The bell is a human intervention that is meant to
illuminate the vastness both of the sea and of mere existence and to point out the futility of trying
to master it with anything as ineffectual as a bell. In both cases, the bell goes unheard: In the first
mention, it is a bell on a buoy out to sea, which will be heard most likely only by those about to
be wrecked on the rocks the buoy is supposed to mark. Placed there by man, the bell has
nevertheless come under the control of the sea and has become irrelevant as a marker of human
intention. The second bell is rung for the dead, for those lost at sea. They are where the sound of
the bell cannot reach them; the bell, therefore, tolls not for them but for those left behind. This
bell is mentioned in the exhortation to the Virgin Mary to pray for those lost and those still here.
Like prayer, the bell represents an attempt to appeal to a higher power, to admit one's own mortal
limits. The bell directly refutes poetic endeavor, too: human-made, a bell's ring is an attempt to
communicate without words, an admission that words have failed.
Perhaps the most famous part of this poem is its opening, with the description of the river
as "a strong brown god." These lines are often coopted and used to describe the Mississippi and
to talk about the mythological importance of rivers. Curiously, though, Eliot is actually demoting
the river to the status of a false god, by pointing out its inferiority to the sea as an object for
contemplation. Popular culture's glorification of these lines indeed illustrates the very inanity of
human action that Eliot describes later in the poem: Dazzled by the lines' rhetorical force, we
tend to attribute greater meaning to the language than is really there, while we ignore what is
actually being said. In the second section of the poem, the river becomes a conduit for refuse and
unpleasant memories, a shallow channel rather than a "strong brown god." Just as we can neither
escape nor romanticize the river, nor can we master the past.
The final lines of "The Dry Salvages" combine a resigned pessimism with a suggestion of
hope. Couched in the beauty of the lines is a dark meaning: "our temporal reversion" is death,
which is beneficial only if we can become "significant soil" that might nourish a tree. By hiding
behind such flights of language, Eliot once again retreats into the refuge of the poet. He may not
be able to master time and experience but he is master of the world that he writes into being.
Futility does not diminish beauty.

"The Dry Salvages"

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Home > Free Study Aids > Study Guides > Poetry > Eliot's Poetry > Four Quartets : "Little Gidding"

"Little Gidding"

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Four Quartets: "Little Gidding"
Summary
"Little Gidding" was the last of the Quartets to be written. It appeared in print in 1942; in
1943, the four pieces were collected and published together. "Little Gidding," named after a 17thcentury Anglican monastery renowned for its devotion, is the place where the problems of time
and human fallibility are more or less resolved. The first section describes a sunny winter's day,
where everything is dead yet blazing with the sun's fire. The poem considers those who have
come to the monastery, who come only "to kneel / Where prayer has been valid." It is here that
man can encounter the "intersection of the timeless" with the present moment, often by heeding
the words of the dead, whose speech is given a vitality by a burning fire. The second section
opens with a lyric on the death of the four elements (air, earth, water, and fire) that have figured
so prominently in the previous quartets. The scene then shifts to the poet walking at dawn. He
meets the ghost of some former master, whom he does not quite recognize. The two speak, and
the ghost gives the poet the burdens of wisdom: awareness of folly, a loss of perception of
beauty, and shame at one's past deeds. The spirit tells him that only if he is "restored by ...refining
fire" will he escape these curses. The spirit then leaves him with a benediction, and a horn blows,
which may be an air-raid siren. The third section is more propositional in nature. The poet
declares that attachment, detachment, and indifference are all related; all three look alike but
indifference comes only through the exercise of memory to create abstractions. The second part
of this section asserts that, despite this, "all shall be well." As the poet thinks on the people who
have come to Little Gidding seeking spiritual renewal and peace, he realizes that the dead have
left us only "a symbol," one that has been perfected but is nevertheless still only a representation
or an abstraction. The fourth section is a formal two-stanza piece describing first a dove with a
tongue of fire, which both purifies and destroys; the second stanza then considers love as the
chief torment of man, which can redeem as well as torture. Either way, we are caught between
two kinds of fire. The final section of the poem, and of the whole of the Quartets, brings the
spiritual and the aesthetic together in a final reconciliation. Perfect language results in poetry in
which every word and every phrase is "an end and a beginning." The timeless and the time-bound
are interchangeable and in the moment, if one is in the right place, like the chapel at Little
Gidding. All will be well when the fires that both destroy and redeem come together to form a
knot and "the fire and the rose"--divine wrath and mercy--become one.
Form
This is the most dramatic of the Four Quartets, in that it is here that the language most
closely approaches the rhythms of everyday speech. The diction is measured, intellectual, but
always self-conscious in its repetitiveness and in the palpable presence of the speaker. Certain
sections of "Little Gidding" ("And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well")
borrow from liturgical language to create the effect of attending an ideal religious service. The
fourth section, like the fourth sections of the other quartets, is a sustained formal piece that serves
as a sort of contrapuntal melody to the rest of the poem. Although not as elegant as "Burnt
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Norton" or as musical as "East Coker," "Little Gidding" is perhaps the most balanced of the
quartets in its attention to imagery and language.
Commentary
Fire and roses are the main images of this poem. Both have a double meaning. Roses, a
traditional symbol of English royalty, represent all of England, but they also are made to stand for
divine love, mercy, and the garden where the children in "Burnt Norton" hide (they reappear at
the end of this poem). Fire is both the flame of divine harshness and the spiritual ether capable of
purifying the human soul and bringing understanding. The series of double images creates a
strong sense of paradox: Just as one seemingly cannot exist both in and out of time, one cannot
be simultaneously both purified and destroyed.
This sense of paradox leads to the creation of an alternative world, rendered through
spiritual retreat and supernatural figures. The dead, with their words "tongued with fire," offer an
alternative set of possibilities for the poet seeking to escape the fetters of reality. By going to a
place "where prayer has been valid," Eliot proposes that imagination and a little faith can conquer
the strictures placed upon man by time and history; as the ghost in the third section reminds the
poet, escape is always possible. This is particularly significant when we notice that the ghost's
words are actually generated by the speaker (who "assumed a double part"), actually engaged in a
dialogue with himself. While the dead can offer us only a "symbol," symbols nevertheless give us
an opportunity for interpretation and exercise of the imagination. By allowing us a way to bypass
the realities of our world, they open up a spiritual freedom.
This poem, finally, celebrates the ability of human vision to transcend the apparent
limitations of human mortality. In a place set away from the world, one can hear, if one chooses,
the children laughing in the garden. War, suffering, and the modern condition have provided
Eliot with an opportunity for spiritual reflection that ultimately transcends external events and the
burden of history. While not an overtly optimistic work, "Little Gidding" and Four Quartets as a
whole offer a reasoned sense of hope. Poetry may suffer from language's inherent lack of
precision, but it provides the aesthetic faculty with an opportunity to disregard human limitations,
if only for a moment.

"Little Gidding"

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